Famous Pirate Media Hijacking Incidents

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In 1972, video collective Videofreex launched the first pirate TV station with the help of a transmitter given to them by activist Abbie Hoffman. Throughout the late ‘70s, the underground group “attempted to harness the democratic power of portable video.” BAMcinemaFest is honoring their fascinating chapter in media history today, which includes a Q&A with members of the collective. There’s a long and weird history of artists and citizens hijacking television and radio broadcasts, which we touch upon, below.

Max Headroom

The famous Max Headroom broadcast hijacking occurred in 1987 on two Chicago TV stations. The still unidentified culprits wore Max Headroom masks (yes, the pop culture character portrayed by Matt Frewer was invented several years before the incidents) and hijacked a sportscast and the “Horror of Fang Rock” episode of Doctor Who. The first transmission was silent, but the second featured a rambling monologue about “the greatest world newspaper nerds,” referring to station WGN’s viewers. Coke also gets a mention, referring to the Max Headroom ad campaign. Oh, and it ends with Max Headroom getting spanked, so there’s that. There’s been endless speculation about who did it. One Redditor claims to know, writing that it was two brothers he used to hang out with during his teen years.

Vrillon

A UK news bulletin was interrupted by an audio message from a voice that identified itself as “Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command.” The broadcast warned of the dangers to the human race and advised on ways to save the world, “and the beings on other worlds” during the “New Age of Aquarius.” The broadcast intrusion was declared a hoax, and the person behind the speech was never caught. Believers in extraterrestrial beings will pop up every now and then to claim it was real, but anyone familiar with science fiction will get a War of the Worlds vibe listening to the audio.

Captain Midnight

Captain Midnight jammed HBO’s satellite in 1986 during The Falcon and the Snowman. The intrusion lasted around five minutes and featured a text complaint about the cost of HBO. The hijacker also threatened to take over the signals of stations Showtime and the Movie Channel. The culprit was caught and identified as John MacDougall from Florida. McDougall pirated the station while working as a master control operator at a satellite teleport, believing that HBO was partially responsible for his declining satellite TV business. The incident led to the passing of Title 18 Code 1367 which made interference with the operation of a satellite a felony.

Christian Broadcasting Network

In 1987, a man named Thomas Haynie who worked for the Christian Broadcasting Network, founded by Pat Robertson, hijacked the Playboy Channel’s signal. They were airing the film Three Daughters at the time. The image contained a message that urged viewers to get right with God. The case went to trial, and Haynie was convicted and sentenced to probation. It should be noted that the hijacking took place the same year that Robertson was in the running for the Republican presidential nomination.

Gay porn on CHCH TV

Oops. A cable company accidentally hijacked a local TV station: “Joey Stewart, 32, was in his downtown dentist office Friday morning getting a temporary crown. While waiting for it to harden, his dentist flipped on the TV to CHCH. Suddenly, Stewart and his dentist found themselves watching explicit gay pornography.”

Zombie attack

Four TV stations were hacked with a phony emergency alert system message about “dead bodies rising from their graves.” The zombie invasion was fake (unfortunately!), but home audiences in Montana, New Mexico, and Michigan got a good scare.

Nuclear explosion on Czech television

NBD, just some Czech people eating their cereal and watching the Sunday morning show Panorama (featuring panoramic shots of their country), mistaking a hacker art collective’s CGI nuclear explosion for the real thing.

Mayday

An Australian broadcast of the Canadian TV series Mayday was interrupted by an eerie audio loop in 2007. “Jesus Christ, help us all, Lord,” played repeatedly for six minutes. An investigation was unable to determine if pirates had hijacked the station or if the religious message was an accidental case of crossed wires.